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Stories Tragedy

Yellow Leaf

“Because you cannot take care of her properly,” I finally say after arguing for almost an hour. “Now, I’ve brought some brochures—”

“I take care of her just fine,” my father replies evenly, those coal black eyes of his boring a hole through me. “I always have. And you know what you can do with those brochures,” he mutters, his tone a clue that I’ve crossed the Rubicon.

“Dad,” I lean forward, exasperated by his arrogant stoicism. “When she was hospitalized last month, she was dehydrated and had a UTI. Her blood sugar level was far too high. She also showed signs of aspirin toxicity. What in God’s name do you feed her, Dad? Candy-coated pain pills?”

He glares at me.

“Can I take you to the grocery store and give you some tips?” I offer.

“I don’t cook. We eat fine,” he states matter-of-factly, settling deeper into his La-Z-Boy recliner. He picks up the remote control to click on cable news. Discussion over.

I walk over to the kitchen trash can and poke around. “From your trash, it looks like Mom has a steady diet of Arby’s and an endless supply of Cherry Coke.” I pull out a half dozen cans from the trash can to rinse and put into the recycling bin.

“Do you always go through people’s trash?” he barks at me. “Isn’t that against what you liberals believe in? Illegal search and seizure? Stop and frisk? Don’t ask, don’t tell?”

“I think you are conflating the Fourth Amendment with the Clinton administration’s military service policy from the 1990’s . . .”

“She likes Arby’s apple pies. But only if they’re frozen.”

“Mom also likes not fainting in public. Ensuring she has adequate nutrition and medical care might help with that.”

“You need to watch yourself, young lady,” he huffs, picking up a magazine he isn’t going to read. The pundits on television shout incendiary statements, making an outrage mountain out of a proverbial molehill. Whole world is going to hell.

“Mom needs protein. Fresh fruits and vegetables,” I plead. He ignores me. “Mom needs proper medical care, not that quack you both go to.”

“Dr. Sherman has been a friend of the family for decades,” he counters.

“He should have retired during the Bush Administration,” I clap back, while walking out of the family room. “The FIRST Bush Administration.”

I hear the television’s volume grow louder as I leave. I shake my head in mild disgust. Stubborn bastard.

My plane doesn’t leave for another two days, and my callous older brothers who gave me this mission will mock me mercilessly for failing to convince these grown-up-children-of the-Great-Depression to move into a retirement community.

Why do 80-year-olds act like 8-year-olds? Spoiled. Petulant. Willful.

Retirement community. Assisted living. Senior care. Even with personalized golf carts and sushi bars and chair yoga classes, my parents know the euphemisms for a nursing home. They know what goes on there. The claustrophobic rules. The aseptic lifestyle. The distractions until death. God’s waiting room.

They know these places are more for adult children to feel more comfortable stashing their inconvenient elderly, nutritious dinners served at 4:30 p.m. notwithstanding.

They know.

My mom sits in the living room, flipping through several books. Not unexpected. When we were little and safely tucked into beds, she often retired with her own thoughts to a place where she could read in peace.

Their formal living room reminds me of a time when company would visit, cake and coffee shared over neighborhood gossip, a bygone era of floral slipcovers and wooden tv trays.

Now the room contains my mother’s books from years of teaching. Books stacked neatly in bookcases, less neatly on the floor.

What does one do with a sea of books, knowledge that no one seems to want anymore?

I do not want to interrupt her, the quietness of her turning silent pages. But the alternative of listening to my father seems a far less attractive proposition.

How my mother agreed to marry such a man astounds me. But who really knows what goes on in a marriage? I never did in either of the two I had.

“Mom?”

“Hello, dear,” she replies. I didn’t know whether to go in or retreat.

“Dad’s watching the news,” I say.

“It keeps him entertained,” she replies, smiling.

I lay on the floor by her feet. My mother seems smaller to me these days, hollowed out like a locust. Her short term memory is spotty, but she can still recite lengthy poems, especially the British Romantics. Keats. Shelley. Wordsworth.

As a child, I loved hearing her recite poetry, clearly, in her lyrical style. I didn’t know what they meant then; I still don’t. But she knows and can explain them to me. That is enough.

“What are you reading?” I ask, wanting to join her in her quiet thoughts.

“I’m seeing if Macbeth is still making poor choices,” she says, looking at me over her glasses. “He is.”

We both chuckle.

“He married a bitch,” I bluntly comment, wanting to shock her for no particular reason.

“He did marry a bitch,” she agrees and looks at me pointedly.

I don’t know how to respond to that.

She holds up a well worn copy of the Scottish play, her elegant handwriting annotating key words and phrases in the margins.

“Read to me?” I ask, sounding like a little girl, putting off going to bed in vain.

“All right,” my mother says patiently. “This is from Act 5. Macbeth has finally learned you reap what you sow.”

“Typical tragic hero,” I try to empathize. “Doing himself in.”

“I have lived long enough. My way of life / Is fall’n into the sear — the yellow leaf — And that which should accompany old age, / As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have — but, in their stead, / Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath / Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.”

She closes the book.

“More?” I ask.

“That’s enough for tonight. We’ll leave Macbeth feeling sorry for himself for not having everything he wanted in life. He can just sit and be old and wish everyone didn’t hate him so much.”

“But he was a jerk.”

“He did the best he could,” she says, looking me full in the face with her gentle blue eyes.

“So I’m guessing you don’t want to see any brochures or—”

She shakes her head definitively. “This is our home.”

“All right,” I relent.

“Tell your brothers that if they’re that concerned, they can come visit.”

“They don’t want to be a bother.”

“They don’t want us to be a bother,” she amends. “But we are happy to have any of you come whenever you wish.”

“Thanks, mom.”

“Of course,” she says, tousling my hair with a free hand like I’m a little kid. “Besides, I have a ton of coupons for Arby’s.”

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